BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Set to take over a multitude of Downtown screens and scenes from April 13–24, the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), now in its 15th year, is already making headlines with an embarrassingly adolescent misstep: its declaration that one previously announced selection won’t be seeing the flicker of a single TFF projector. “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a documentary taking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to task for suppressing information linking the MMR vaccine to autism, was pulled from the schedule after a brief but messy public outcry from those who said the film’s very presence would give credence to ill-advised parenting and medical quackery.
“My intent in screening this film,” said festival co-founder Robert De Niro, “was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for. The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.”
That was it for “Vaxxed,” as well as any further discussion on the matter. “We commented over the weekend,” said a TFF press representative, when asked to expand on why such a carefully curated festival — whose post-screening Q&As don’t shy away from robust discussion — would make the unprecedented move of launching a preemptive strike against one of its own.
No amount of steak pressed against that black eye will soon restore the festival’s well-earned reputation for championing provocative work — and the fact that “Vaxxed” is currently screening at the Angelika Film Center further magnifies the perception that De Niro and his programmers were both asleep at the wheel and too quick to pull the kill switch.
That said, we’re still proceeding ahead with our annual genre-structured preview of TFF flicks (all of them still booked as of press time!). So consider taking a chance on the following 21 films — a number that, unlike 15, references an age of maturity at which the stage is set for a lifetime’s worth of integrity and good judgment. Zing!
GOING HOME, GETTING REAL & LETTING GO | A powerful strain of melancholy seems to have gripped the programmers of this year’s TFF, who’ve curated a festival with a robust quotient of films that task their main characters with returning to old haunts and — by choice, force, or circumstance — growing up.
UK writer/director Rachel Tunnard parlays her British Academy Film Awards-nominated short into a full-length comedy about almost-30 Anna’s fits-and-starts attempt to acquire “Adult Life Skills.” After the death of her twin brother, she moves back to her rural hometown — and into a dead-end job, and an even more depressing living situation (the shed in her mother’s back yard). A chance meeting and growing friendship with a troubled young boy in desperate need of personal growth has her contemplating serious changes in her own state of fantasy world complacency. From Denmark, “Parentis” has empty nest couple Kjeld and Vibeke reacting to the absence of their son by moving back into the apartment they shared while students. That nostalgic flight of fancy takes a surreal turn, when they greet the dawn of a new day to discover they’ve become 30 years younger.
A underappreciated master of slow burns and exasperated expressions, everyman actor Jason Bateman has his sophomore directorial effort with “The Family Fang,” in which a brother (Bateman) and his sister (Nicole Kidman) come back to their childhood home and embark on a search for their missing parents.
Argentinian director Daniel Burman’s “The Tenth Man” is a gently comedic, affectionately observed, homecoming tale taking place over the seven days of Purim. Called back to the Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Ariel seeks to reconcile how his childhood dynamic with a caring yet often absent parent was shaped by his father’s acquiescence to the requirements of their religion.
WARFARE, PAST AND PRESENT | In “The Fixer,” an exiled Afghan journalist lands a job at a small Northern California town’s newspaper. Applying those war correspondent skills to the humdrum police blotter beat, his pursuit of one particular item leads down a familiar, yet foreign, rabbit hole of conflict, danger, and intrigue. Pursuing a stable relationship and resolving to make a new life for himself as a real estate agent, “The Loner” — a former child soldier in 1980s Iran — struggles to shake his opium addiction and gambling habit. This visually intense and artfully violent debut feature from Daniel Grove (who also wrote the screenplay) bathes the mean streets of Los Angeles in neon, pitting the title character (Reza Sixo Safai, seen in the 2014 Iranian vampire tale “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) against both sides in a feud between the Iranian and Russian mobs. Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, the documentary “National Bird” assesses the collateral damage — physical, psychological, moral — experienced by three military veterans of America’s predator drone program.
ART ON FILM | Furniture designer, taxidermist, subversive satirist, defiant outsider, and art world darling: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan has been all of this and more over the decades, managing to elude categorization. Charting the journey from scrappy upstart to his rightful place in the contemporary art canon, Maura Axelrod’s documentary “Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back” takes a playful approach to its search for the real story behind Cattelan’s public persona and diverse body of work. A Sun., Apr. 24, 6:30pm screening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a homecoming, of sorts, as the Guggenheim’s 2011 Cattelan retrospective cemented his place in the contemporary art canon. TFF seems to have a sweet tooth this year for art docs with a weakness for colons. Case in point: Matt Pizzano’s “Becoming: Bradley Theodore” (Apr. 15, 9pm) is an eight-minute short about how the titular artist turned his life around over the course of two years, through self-education, self-promotion, and sheer dedication. In “Burden,” directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey survey the 45-year career of Chris
Burden, whose self-analysis and philosophical musings are interspersed with footage and commentary that recall projects infused with danger and personal sacrifice — literally. Besides having been crucified to a VW bug, Burden’s been shot at, and confined to a 2x2x3 locker for several days.
The viral darling of stealth street art could be toppled by an upstart rival, in this debut feature from directors Ian Roderick Gray and Dylan Harvey. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, “The Banksy Job” is a frenetic art world heist caper tale told by AK47 — a former porn star and acid rave promoter who assumes the villainous role of art world spoiler by setting out, in broad daylight, to swipe a piece of Bansky’s work located in Central London.
A more grounded (but no less affecting) portrait of an artist unfolds in “Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray.” Using vérité footage, exclusive interviews with art world luminaries, and excerpts from the painter’s private journals (as voiced by Meryl Streep), production designer Kristi Zea’s directorial debut is an intimate documentary following Murray’s formative years as an early feminist and mother of three, through a lung cancer diagnosis at the apex of her career. The film’s world premiere takes place on Sat., Apr. 23, 4:30 & 7:30 p.m, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with another TFF screening on Sun., Apr. 24, 7:15 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Battery Park.
LGBTQ | Weaving together footage from recently discovered home movies and unflinching excerpts from contemporary interviews, the act of contrition referenced in “Memories of a Penitent Heart” applies as much to the stigmatizing behavior of Cecilia Aldarondo’s family as it does to her uncle Miguel’s bid to reconcile his Puerto Rican/Catholic upbringing with his sexuality, in the days leading up to his death from AIDS in 1980s NYC. The subsequent shunning of his lover, Robert, comes to a head when Aldarondo tracks him down 25 years later, and begins to ask questions about keeping secrets, second chances, and what we cling to in times of crisis. The long shadow of Madge hovers over the men who went from obscurity to worldwode scritiny and back again, as the dancers who accompanied Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. “Strike a Pose” reunites seven of the artists 25 years later, to reveal “the emotional truth behind the glamorous façade” — not just of life on the road, but of the further scrutiny they faced as stars of the tour documentary “Truth or Dare.”
The documentary “Check It” follows a group of Washington D.C. gay and trans teens of color who respond to bullying, rape, and abuse by forming their own gang and sending a message that acts of physical aggression against one of their own will be met with equal, or greater, force. Three members of the group are focused on in particular, as they pursue careers in fashion as an alternative to the cycle of gang violence. Journeys of personal growth also figure into “King Cobra,” a selection in TFF’s Midnight series that documents the rise, so to speak, of gay porn actor Brent Corrigan (aka Sean Paul Lockhart, who later became a gay-centric and “mainstream” actor/director of some note). “Cobra” coils around Corrigan’s formative years, and the bitter break with the producer who made him famous. Garrett Clayton and Christian Slater star, respectively, as the feuding pair, alongside an ensemble whose marquee names include James Franco, Alicia Silverstone, and Molly Ringwald.
DO YOU LIKE GOOD MUSIC? | Two childhood pals — one who grows up to be a comedian, the other, a folk-rocker — take to the road and split the bill on whatever hardscrabble gigs they can book, in “Folk Hero & Funny Guy.” The documentary “Bad Rap” profiles the outsider quest of four Asian-American rappers struggling for artistic recognition. Hip-hop also exerts a pull on the young Palestinian protagonists of “Junction 48,” whose charged lyrics chafe against their conservative community and outside forces. In Arabic/Hebrew with English subtitles.
“SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock” is a documentary that surveys the prolific career of music photographer Mick Rock, who gives a first-hand account of capturing iconic shots of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Queen, and other famous names. In “Geezer,” Green Day member and Broadway composer Billie Joe Armstrong stars as the former lead singer of a punk band who, at 40, finds himself married, living in the suburbs, parenting two children, and pining for more of the glories he amassed from a misspent youth.
For tickets and schedule info, visit tribecafilm.com or call 646-502-5296.